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Biotechnology Institute Showcases 2021 Mid-year Program Success

WASHINGTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Today, the Biotechnology Institute reported on the success of its signature program, the 2021 International BioGENEius Challenge and that of its newest venture, BioDiversity 2021, both in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

The International BioGENEius Challenge was held in conjunction with BIO DIGITAL 2021 hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). The virtual format, as for 2020, did not affect the superb quality of the high school finalists, fielding original research in healthcare, the environment and agricultural sustainability. Drawn from the best-of-the-best state and regional finalists from around the U.S. and Canada, the students demonstrated impressive projects with many making use of self-programmed artificial intelligence and convolutional neural network algorithms to identify novel SARS-CoV-2 targets and neurotherapeutics, enhancing farm crop yields, and innovative solutions to remove environmentally disastrous microplastics from our marine and fresh water bodies.

“The high school students competing in the BioGENEius Challenge are among the world’s most innovative young researchers,” said Seema Kumar, Global Head, Office of Innovation, Global Health and Scientific Engagement, Johnson & Johnson. “Their projects represent extraordinary thinking about how to use biotechnology and science to solve the world’s most challenging problems. We are very proud to be a longtime supporter of this program and to honor their contributions to science and society."

This year's overall winner came in the Global Healthcare category with Meenakshi Ambati, a junior at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA and her research entitled “Identification of Fluoxetine as a direct NLRP3 inhibitor to treat atrophic macular degeneration: Molecular modeling, Mechanism, Morphometry, and Meta-analysis.”

Meena investigated the structural similarity between fluoxetine, a drug already approved by the FDA for depression, and another molecule, CY09, a known “inflammasome” inhibitor. Through computer modeling and experiments, she showed that fluoxetine was a potent, but far less toxic, inhibitor of a key enzyme in the inflammatory pathway critical to the onset of Atrophic Macular Degeneration (or “dry” AMD) leading to the degeneration of the retinal epithelium. She extended her experimental results employing data mining of more than 130 million patient records from health insurance databases and using her own algorithm showed that those diagnosed with depression, on fluoxetine, had a statistically lower risk of developing AMD. With patents filed, and licensed, a biotech company will now seek FDA approval to begin clinical trials for the repurposing of fluoxetine for the treatment of AMD using an intraocular delivery system, a condition for which currently no disease modifying drug exists. Meena also took first place in the coveted fast pitch Gene Pool competition.

Judges additionally recognized with highest honors Caroline Huang, a sophomore from Abbey Park High School, Oakville, ON, Canada for her research on “Simulating Neuroregeneration using Physarum (or “slime mold”) Habituation,” and Pryia Soneji, a senior at Milton High School, Milton, GA for her research on “Autonomously Tracking Organisms in Three Axes at Microscopic Resolution.”

In the first quarter of this year, the Institute successfully concluded its inaugural online afterschool STEM education program “BioDiversity” for 3rd-8th graders with the objective to engage, excite and educate students of ethnic and cultural backgrounds who are under-represented in the scientific community. While students focused on core STEM principles, significant emphasis was placed on the biological sciences and the potential for biotechnology to help solve some of our most challenging global problems and encourage their potential to pursue career paths in science.

“By expanding our reach throughout the K-12 educational system, we hope to inspire our younger generations to pursue their scientific creativity,” said Dr. Larry Mahan, President of the Biotechnology Institute. “By fostering this exploration of biotechnology to solve our unmet global needs, we will ensure the continued growth of “bio” STEM education and career development opportunities in both academia and industry for these, our next-gen innovators.”

This year, BioDiversity enrolled 100 students from Camden City and East Orange, NJ as well as Philadelphia representing some of the most under resourced and underserved school districts. Students discussed role models in science reflecting their diversity, received 12 weeks of instructor guided bioscience curricula including hands on experiments, and a broader awareness of community engagement through health education and critical skills development.

Plans are underway to expand BioDiversity to similar educational ecosystems in the U.S. through aligned corporate sponsorships.

The BioGENEius Challenge and BioDiversity are organized by the Biotechnology Institute, a U.S. based organization dedicated to biotechnology education. Generous supporting sponsors include Johnson & Johnson Innovation and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

About the Biotechnology Institute

The Biotechnology Institute is an independent, national nonprofit organization dedicated to education about the present and future impact of biotechnology. Its mission is to engage, excite and educate the public, particularly students and teachers, about biotechnology and its immense potential for solving human health, food and environmental problems. For more information, visit


Quinta Jackson

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Last Updated: 05-Aug-2021